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Broncos taking aim at AFC West title, coach Sean Payton says

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LOS ANGELES — Week by week, as the Broncos have tried to lift themselves out of a hole they dug over the season’s first six games, most of the conversation has centered on whether Denver can get back into the postseason picture.

Head coach Sean Payton has his sights set on a different destination. It’s not just about sneaking in.

“Obviously, we’re a game out in our division,” he said of the AFC West race on Monday. “That’s how we’re looking at it.”

Indeed, Kansas City has won the division seven straight years but looks as vulnerable as perhaps at any point during that streak. The Chiefs dropped a home game Sunday against Buffalo and in the process fell to 8-5, just a game clear of the surging Broncos. They have lost two straight and three of their past four.

A division title isn’t impossible for the Broncos, but it’s also not particularly likely. Denver and Kansas City split their season series, and the next tiebreaker is division record. Currently the Chiefs are 3-1 and Denver 2-2. Each team has a pair of division games remaining — one each against the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas. At present, Kansas City has the edge in common opponents played, which is the third level of tiebreaker.

Even still, the fact that the Broncos can even have this conversation at this point in the season shows how far they’ve come.

“The truth is, in our season we’re 5-1 over the past six weeks and now 6-1,” quarterback Russell Wilson said after Sunday’s win. “I think there’s great belief. (I) told the guys in the huddle before the last knee, ‘Stay humble and hungry, let’s keep going.’

“We’re not even at our best yet, and that’s a good thing.”

Denver’s going to need its best to make the playoffs in any capacity.

Here’s a rundown of where several outlets peg the Broncos’ postseason chances with four games to go:

New York Times: 50% postseason, 9% division title

Sumer Sports: 41.3%, division title 5.3%

ESPN: 38% postseason, 8% division title

In the AFC, teams are jumbled up around the cut line. The Broncos are one of six teams that are currently 7-6. At the moment, there are two spots behind the four division leaders and then 8-5 Cleveland.

“I’m sure we’ve seen it like this either in the NFC or the AFC, but I can’t recall having been a part of it,” Payton said of the big group of teams sporting the same record this late in the season. “We kind of talked about this last week. This next quarter pole is obviously going to define a lot for a lot of teams, and fortunately we’re one of those teams. We’ve just got to focus on the next job.

“But it is unusual.”

For all the moving parts and changing odds, the approach for Denver is pretty simple: win the last four games and you’re in. Take care of business against the three AFC teams left on the schedule and you’ll have a great chance.

“It’s shaping up to be a pretty good race to the end,” Denver running back Javonte Williams said. “We’re just trying to focus on these last four games we’ve got and win all of those. The ball’s in our court.”

He was reluctant, though, to forecast the Broncos’ odds.

“Yeah I can’t really speak too much on it,” he said with a laugh. “Coach Payton told me I talk about the playoffs too much, so I’ve got to chill.”

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